The Struggle Ahead for Soweto

Conversations with a Ghetto Leader

Dr. Motlana is one of the unofficial leaders of South Africa's urban blacks. He is chairman of the Soweto Committee of Ten, a grassroots black organization designed to better the political and social life of the urban black. The South African government has twice banned Dr. Motlana. His eldest son fled the country after the 1976 Soweto Riots. Despite recent efforts on the part of the government, Motlana refuses to partake in any government sponsored activities.

When we first contacted Dr. Motlana, he invited us to his home in Soweto. What we didn't know at the time was that whites must obtain a special visitors permit from the government to enter the black township of Soweto. To avoid the troublesome process of getting a pass, we suggested that we meet for dinner Johannesburg and asked Dr. Motlana to choose a restaurant. He politely declined.

What we didn't realize was that there was no choice. The only restaurants in which South African blacks and whites can mingle are those few restaurants designated as "international" by the government. "International" status is given almost exclusively to the few five star hotels in order to accomodate black diplomats.

The night of the interview Dr. Motlana arrived with his son Karabo, a university student. As if by mutual agreement, niceties were dispensed with and we tackled issues that kept us talking well into the night.

For simplicity's sake we have labelled our questions, Us, Dr. Motlana's answers Dr. M., and his son's comments, K.

Us: Dr. Motlana, you're chairman of the Soweto Committee of Ten. How did the committee come about? What is its purpose? Dr. M.: After the riots in 1976, the youth got together and said we must do something to organize our own affairs. They approached me and asked me to come to their organizational meeting, where I was elected chairman. We have no specific goals, we just want an impartial voice for the community. We want to arrange our own affairs and not have someone from the West Rand Administration (government agency) arrange them for us.

Us: What is the Committee's power?

Dr. M.: We have the people with us.

Us: Aren't you in fact endorsing apartheid by accepting your fate in Soweto, rather than struggling to get out?

Dr M.: I've been accused of collaborating, that is nonsense. We must walk a very narrow line. This is not America where Martin Luther King can march down Washington Avenue. We are making a strong statement by the mere existence of the committee showing Afrikaanerdom that we will decide our own future.

Us: Aren't you concerned about yourself, your family?

Dr. M.: Yes, of course we're concerned. I was banned twice, I'll probably be banned again. They could banish me to the Kalahari desert. Of course we are afraid. My son was forced to leave the country, the BOSS intercept our correspondence with him. We are against a fortress.

Us: Despite the suffering you endure there were no riots in Soweto this June 16th, why?

Dr. M.: We didn't start the riots of 1976. It was the police that rioted, not the people. The police were nervous, jumpy, they turned a tense situation into a blood bath. This year the police were more experienced so there were no riots.

Us: The government says that the blacks are divided. They claim that the urban blacks are at odds with the rural blacks and that you are strongly divided along tribal lines.

K: Yes, they want us all to believe that. It's rubbish. The government spends more money on maintaining tribal separation than it does on education. They divide us according to tribes even in the black ghetto. For example, black students seeking tertiary education must go to a tribal university.

Dr. M.: There is no difference to us. We are all opposed to these policies. The urban blacks feel the discrimination more than the rural blacks. The government can encourage division but it won't work.

Us: What about the other race groups in the country? Is there co-operation between yourselves and the coloreds and Indians?

K: This is a difficult area. The government has been very clever and at first successful. They gave the coloreds more than the Indians and the Indians more than the Africans.

Dr. M.: Everyone wipes his feet on the African.

K: So the coloreds like to associate themselves with the white man. They stress their white side more than their black ancestry. But this is rapidly changing. During the riots in Soweto and those in Capetown, the coloreds marched with the Africans against the Afrikaaner.

Dr. M.: The situation is changing because coloreds marry Africans and are "reclassified" downwards to African. The situation with the Indian population is different.

K: The Indian makes money, sends it to England and waits to get out of the country. They are non political.

Dr. M.: But colored, Indian, that's not the point. They are nothing. Without them we the Africans are twenty million strong. One can understand the coloreds and Indians for wanting a little better material life and psychological advantage of not being a "kaffir." They won't make a difference.

Us: Having no political power, how can you change this country?

Dr. M.: We must refuse to collaborate in our own oppression. that is the only solution.

K: There will be aid from our northern borders.

Us: The N.P. is saying that "petty apartheid" is dead or dying, and that blacks will be given more economic opportunities. Is that a step in the right direction?

Dr. M.: There is no such thing as "petty apartheid" to a black man. It is far too late for us to accept anything but full and equal rights in our country.

Us: Can change be achieved within the framework of the Republic?

Dr. M.: I must be careful in answering your question. Change and stability are opposites, they cannot coexist. As long as there is stability there is no change. When there is change the situation is obviously unstable.

Us: But what of the talks on a new constitution?

Dr. M.: The new constitution is a joke. It gives coloreds and Indians a trivial part in Afrikaaner government and totally ignores the African. They expect to "repatriate" us to our homelands. They strip us of our citizenship and tell us we are now members of some tribal homeland even though we were both here in Soweto. Some of us have never even been to these homelands.

Moreover, these homelands are scattered dots on the map, totally unviable as political or economic units. Indeed if they had any value at all the white man would not surrender these lands. If they were viable economic units the black man would work there rather than supply South Africa with cheap migrant labor. This country has a migrant labor force only because the government chooses to define them as such.

Us: Realistically, can there be anything but violent change?

Dr. M.: Look, I've told you before, change cannot come as long as there is stability, but we don't want violent change.

Us: Can whites play any role in the struggle?

Dr. M.: The situation in South Africa is one of conflict between white and black. That is the role of the white man in our struggle.

Us: So there is nothing whites can do to be part of the struggle for equal rights in South Africa?

Dr. M.: We are in confrontation. Even the liberal whites in this country are not really interested in the sort of change we want. Look, if you scratch a liberal you'll find a conservative. Some talk and talk to ease their conscience, and then they go back to their factories where they pay the black man one third of what they pay the white man.

Us: Haven't there been some changes? Isn't it a fact that blacks may now own their homes in Soweto, rather than lease them from the government?

K: That is another of the great myths. First of all this so called ownership is a 99 year lease. But more importantly, since the enactment of this law over two years ago, only one lease has in fact been granted.

Us: If the "change" comes...

Dr. M.: When the change comes...

Us: When the change comes, can it be anything but a communist takeover?

Dr. M.: I am not a Marxist, and I know that you Americans shudder when you hear redistribution of wealth. But it's happened here in South Africa before. When the "Nats" took power in 1948 from Smuts' United Party they (the Afrikaaners) began a concerted effort to redistribute the wealth. The entire civil service was padded with Afrikaaners, to get a government contract you had to be Afrikaaner, special schools and services were established for the Afrikaaner. Redistribution of the wealth does not necessarily imply Marxism.

Us: What should Americans that sympathize with your aspirations do?

K: First and most important, you must not recognize the regime in Salisbury (Rhodesia) or that in Namibia (South West Africa).

Us: Why not? These were democratically elected regimes.

Dr. M.: Look, when will you Americans learn? You've lost Asia and you haven't learned. You've lost most of Africa and you have't learned. Why don't you get on the side of the winners for once? Why can't you learn to stop these mistakes and be with the victors in Southern Africa?

Us: How severe a blow would the survival of Zimbabwe Rhodesia and Namibia be to your aspirations?

K: Very severe. It would set any change back for a long time.

Dr. M.: No it won't, there will be change here shortly.

Us: In your lifetime?

Dr. M.: Of course, of course.

Us: I'm afraid most Americans will find it difficult not to support the democratically elected regime in Zimbabwe...

Dr. M.: Democratically elected? Who was democratically elected? Nkomo and Mugabe were left out of the vote.

Us: Or perhaps refused to participate?

Dr. M.: That's not really true. They will participate in an all parties conference. Until they are represented in Zimbabwe there will be war in Zimbabwe. As long as there is war in Zimbabwe, there will be instability in the region. As I've said, instability is conducive to change...

Us: Let's forget Zimbabwe a minute and talk about divestment. Should Americans divest their holdings in corporations doing business in South Africa?

Dr. M.: Regardless of what you do there will be change in South Africa. You must decide which side you want to be on.

Us: In other words, business is part of the enemy.

Dr. M.: The corporations here talk of social responsibility etc... But who benefits from the cheap labor? Why don't they pay blacks the same as whites? I work in a hospital and I see the black nurses that have worked there for forty years and know an operating room better than I do. I've seen white graduates of nursing school come in to the hospital and fire these black nurses. Why? Because they will not tolerate a black knowing more than they do. Business is the same, we can never go beyond a certain stage, it would violate the system.

Us: What of the various codes of corporate conduct? The Sullivan Principles, for example?

Dr. M.: Rubbish. The codes say equal pay for equal work, but there is no equal work! As soon as a black works in a certain job they give it a different title. Blacks and whites can be doing the same exact thing but the job titles will be different.

Us: What is the future of South Africa?

Dr. M.: The future is beautiful, we will have beautiful country soon.

K: I don't know. We have a long struggle ahead.

This is the second of two interviews. Gerald J. Sanders and Zan Brookshire are third year students at the University of Texas Law School, and visited South Africa this summer.